By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2002 Gourmet Magazine
MAGDI ACZEL punched Michael the second time we ate at her restaurant. Our first meals of beef goulash and chicken paprikash were so delicious that we were eager to come back. But, as much as we enjoyed the squiggly little dumplings called nockerli that accompanied both dishes, we felt that a return trip called for a different side to go with a plate of sliced roast pork loin and sweet-and-sour red cabbage.
So Michael innocently asked, “Are your mashed potatoes real or from a mix?”
At that, Magdi socked him in the shoulder. The idea that anything from her kitchen is less than first-rate makes her steam. Since that day, now over two decades ago, it has become a habit for us to sit down and ask her, “Is the soup from a can?” or “Are the palacsinta frozen?”
She lays down her order pad, puffs up in mock fury, and cries, “I am smashing you!” as she thumps our shoulders in the same way you’d slap a good horse on its neck. We love getting hit by Magdi.
Since they opened The Goulash Place in Danbury 25 years ago, Magdi and John Aczel, who escaped from Hungary in 1971, have made their humble dining room a real family restaurant.
As is true of visits to cherished relatives, details remain constant and reassuring: paper napkins folded at each place like little party hats, a basket of fresh sliced white bread, a small stack of saltines to accompany soup, and always the aroma of slow-cooking roasts that makes walking into the restaurant a dizzy swirl of instant hunger and lingering memory of appetites past.
Neighborhood regulars often occupy the five stools at the small bar while waiting for their take-out orders, watching the news on the overhead TV. If Magdi takes a shine to you, she will show off pictures of her son, the chef at a fancy restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia. And if you don’t finish your meal and don’t want to take home the leftovers, Magdi will tell you that her dogs, P.T. and Gypsy, thank you very much.
One reason that it’s easy to feel at home at The Goulash Place is because it actually is John and Magdola Aczel’s home. They live upstairs, and they are the staff. You will meet Magdi the moment you enter. She is the hostess, waitress, and a cappella entertainment, interspersing her ongoing table-to-table discourse with an impertinent repertoire of “Boop-boop!”;”Quack-quack!”; and whatever other comical sound effects a particular customer inspires. John is a quieter sort, busy in the tiny kitchen, but you will see him as he steps out through the swinging door to bring plates of food to Magdi. At calm times, you might meet John’s mother sitting at a table in her housecoat. She is a 90-something baker who also lives upstairs and who is responsible for the intoxicating rum cake that is an occasional dessert special.
The much-abused term home cooking is fully apt here. Do not expect lightning-fast service. For one thing, Magdi operates at her own pace, taking time to schmooze with every table; and each meal—none costing more than $15—is prepared to order. Soups come fast, but they weren’t made in a jiffy; chicken noodle, mushroom, split pea, and pinto bean with ham are lovably homespun. After an appetizer of either soup or cream-soft crêpes stuffed with chicken hash, you definitely want cool cucumber salad—the Magyar classic of sweet disks of cucumber in a vinegar dill marinade topped with sour cream and a luminous red sprinkle of hot paprika.
The entrée menu features three kinds of goulash: Hungarian beef goulash, which is cubed meat in thick gravy; goulash soup, also made with beef; and Transylvanian goulash, which is fork-tender sections of pork enveloped in drifts of spicy sauerkraut with a dollop of sour cream on top. As a side dish for any of these, it is never easy deciding between the butter-sauced nockerli that are the traditional companion to paprikas and chunky mashed potatoes (clearly not from a mix), which are served with a gravy that is suitable for whatever meat they accompany. Beyond goulash and paprikas, you can choose from sliced roast pork loin accompanied by red cabbage, crisp-fried veal cutlet, beef Stroganoff, and rugged-textured meatloaf.
For dessert, there are hot palacsinta (crêpes) folded around sweet pot cheese, apricot jam, strawberry jam, chocolate cream, or sweetened chopped nuts. And there is that rum cake, served in chocolate-dusted chunks. “How is your mother-in-law’s cake?” asks one person at our table. “Nobody died from it yet,” Magdi answers.